Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Martha's Take On Unpredictability

Unpredictable story twists comes in three forms.

1. Delightful
2. Deus ex machina
3. Dud

The second never fails to piss me off, even when used ironically (I'm looking at you, Adaptation). I don't care if it was good enough for Greek tragedies. If I wanted a random act to solve all the story's problems, I would have asked my five year old niece to weave a tale.

This leaves us with Delightful and Dud. Please pardon this spoilerific post as I break down the most famous unpredictable moments in movie history and how they cross the line for me.


1. The Usual Suspects
A gimp describing to the police how a mysterious and nefarious mob boss toyed with and took down his gang turns out to be the mastermind he's been describing.

2. Planet of the Apes (original)
Human trying to escape back to earth from a planet overrun by apes realizes he is on the future.

3. The Empire Strikes Back
Whiny teenager learns the big bad guy he's trying to take down is his father.

4. The Sixth Sense
Psychologist trying to help a kid overcome his ghostly encounters realizes he himself is one of the ghostly encounters.

5. Memento
A man with no long term memory avenging his life will never remember he's already had his revenge but will never remember it and thus never know peace.


1. Life of David Gale
Man allows himself to be wrongly executed for murder to make a point about the death penalty.

2. The Village
Simple villagers learn their life is a grand experiment to leave behind the evils of the modern world.

3. Fallen
Guy describing his attempt to stay alive at the hands of a demon is oops, really the demon himself.

4. The Forgotten
Woman tries to find her missing son who everyone insists didn't exist and realizes she's part of an alien sociological experiment to test parental bonds.

5. Identity
Ten strangers die off one by one in a motel and turn out all to be the imaginings of someone with schizophrenia.

Here's my call on the difference between the two: the twist needs to be on a character, not on the audience.

While The Usual Suspects gives us an aha moment, Kaiser Soze was pulling a fast one on an arrogant police detective, not us, and we feel along for the ride as the lame stuttering character proves to be the clever one.

In Planet of the Apes, Charlton Heston realizes his arrogance in assuming humans were the top of the evolutionary ladder.

In Empire Strikes Back, it's Luke's world that is ripped apart.

For Six Sense, Bruce Willis's revelation of his dead state comes with character catharsis.

For Memento, Guy Pierce doesn't even get to be in on his unpredictable twist, only we realize that his quest for revenge is fruitless in every possible way, as most quests for revenge are.

Point is, across all five, we live the lesson only secondary to the characters in the story. For the five duds, the characters almost seem not to be the point.

The Life of David Gale crams a message down our throat about the death penalty and didn't bother to make me care about the issue nor the characters involved. It doesn't matter to the guy who dies nor the reporter telling his story because they were already on board with their respective moral codes.

The Village does the same on the perils of modern life. We don't see this realization change anyone - it's supposed to change us. Well, no thanks.

Same with Fallen for making me root for a demon. We end the story exactly where we started (literally, same scene) and I'm supposed to be the one who feels taken for a ride instead of any particular character.

The Forgotten was just so bizarre - aliens, really - and a message about the bond of parenthood being unbreakable. Geez, thanks.

And Identity - once I realize the ten people are essentially not real and neither are the murders I checked out.

The latter five try to be clever at the expense of the audience, try to be didactic. Don't make me part of your story. Don't have your message, your twist, depend on me. I'm a mixed bag. You never know what you're going to get. I'm as unpredictable as you're trying to be in your story.

Just tell the story.


Juliet Blackwell said...

I love this analysis! I never really thought much about why some surprise endings are so satisfying, while others leave me cold. If only I were clever enough to incorporate some of this into my own writing...I'll have to run a few ideas by you ;-)

Gigi Pandian said...

This is great, Martha. And I'd like to add a recent example of a movie that *should* have been delightful for the exact reason you explained, but totally screwed itself into being a dud because it tried to fool the AUDIENCE even when the other characters weren't on stage.


I'm talking about The Tourist. When the twist is revealed at the end, it really *could* have been a moment just like in The Sixth Sense where you think back through the movie and realize "oh my God it makes perfect sense!" but in The Tourist, they had Johnny Depp playing his fake character EVEN WHEN ONLY THE AUDIENCE WAS WATCHING. (Sorry for the CAPS, but screaming the point is really quite necessary here.) Which made the movie make no sense when you look back on it. Instead of an "ah ha!" moment, you get a "what the hell, his actions made no sense" moment. If they'd thought about the difference between his actions when others were around versus only the camera, it could have been fixed with changes just just a few scenes.

Mysti said...

I'm the only person (on Earth) who liked The Forgotten, but your point is well taken! And thanks for saving me from Identity, I can't resist John Cusack but will make an effort in this case :)

LOVE the idea that plot twists come from the character reveal, and not vice versa. I've always thought about these things in terms of suspense and anticipation (what makes us know *something* is going to happen, but not be sure *what*), this makes the whole thing pop in 3D. Thanks!

P.S. You have to be careful with character. I was so *bored* by the Bruce Willis character (because he could only do what ghosts do) that I didn't care whether he was alive or dead by the time we got there...but again, that was probably just me!

Martha Flynn said...

Fair point, Mysti - I would watch Brucey read the phone book so I may be a tad biased. :):)

Oh man, I was trying to forget The Tourist ever happened. Gigi, that performance was also nominated for a Golden Globe, right? WHAAAAT?

Julie, thanks for pretending I have anything at all to teach you.

Rachael Herron said...

Love this. marching into some character ripping-apart-ing, and will keep all of this in mind.

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